Britain's air force
was the first one in the world independent of a country's army or navy. It was formed in 1918 under the leadership of Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard
, who was also first Chief of Air Staff (CAS) in the newly-formed Air Ministry
Military air power was first used for observation in 1794 (France), transport in 1862 (USA), and attack in 1911 (Italy against Turkey in Libya). The first military manoeuvres in Britain were in 1880, at Aldershot, and a balloon section of the Royal Engineers was formed in 1890. The first aeroplane to fly in Britain was in 1908, also at Aldershot. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in 1912, including aeroplanes, balloons, and kites, and having a military wing, a naval wing, a flying school, an aircraft factory, and a reserve. This was the forerunner of the RAF. At first they thought the primary use of aeroplanes would be observational.
In the First World War Britain built the world's largest air force. At the end of the war we had 22647 aircraft, 103 airships, 671 aerodromes, and 290 000 personnel, compared to 155 aircraft and 7 airships at the beginning. In 1914 the largest was Germany's, with 246 aircraft and 5 zeppelins.
April 1917, "Bloody April", was the worst month of the war for the RAF: life expectancy for a pilot in France was two months. They lost 150 aircraft, 75 in the first week, and 316 crew: the Germans lost 370 aircraft.
Because of squabbling between them and the Army and Navy, the Air Force in 1919 created their own system of ranks, such as Group Captain, Wing Commander, Squadron Leader, and so on. You'd think I could find a complete listing of them on the RAF's own website, wouldn't you? Not a hope. Horrid website.
"Their finest hour" was of course the Battle of Britain in the Second World War, and this write-up would be far too long if I tried to say anything about that here.
The RAF today is divided into Strike Command and Personnel and Training Command. Strike Command HQ is at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. On 1 April 2000 it was divided into three groups: No 1 Group holds all the attack aircraft like Tornados and the new Eurofighter, except the Harriers; No 2 Group provides the support for frontline operations, such as air transport and air-to-air refuelling; and No 3 Group does joint support with the Navy, holding the Harriers as well as search-and-rescue and mountain rescue.
The largest RAF station is at Brize Norton in Gloucestershire, founded in 1937, and which is now the main base for large transporters. Others include RAF Marham in Norfolk, a bomber base; RAF Coltishall for fighers; RAF Northolt in London where the Queen's Flight is housed (so visiting world leaders are often received there); more transport at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire; and 26 other "flying stations" if I've counted right. A flying station holds British aircraft. Two other bases, Fairford and Mildenhall, are USAF bases.
There are three RAF bases in Germany, one in Canada, and one each in the British territories of Ascension, Gibraltar, Akrotiri (in Cyprus), and the Falkland Islands.
Mainstay of the strike force is the Tornado GR1, first delivered in 1980. These are based at Lossiemouth in Scotland and Bruggen in Germany. The older Jaguar fighter-bombers are based at Coltishall. The famous Harrier Jump Jet is based largely at RAF Cottishall; and the main support helicopter is the Chinook.
The RAF roundel is three rings of blue (outside), white, and red. Motto: Per Ardua Ad Astra.